Court upholds conversion therapy ban

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court upheld an order enforcing a permanent injunction against New Jersey-based conversion therapy promoters and awarding attorneys’ fees for bringing the enforcement action.

The court ruled that a Jersey City gay-conversion therapy practice, Jewish Institute for Global Awareness, must pay a $3.5 million fee award after breaching the terms of a settlement in a consumer fraud suit.

The Appellate Division reinstated the award after upholding a Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr.’s decision finding the group and its administrators continued to engage in conversion therapy after they had agreed to a settlement that barred such activity, in exchange for a greatly reduced penalty.

Plaintiffs successfully prosecuted a case against a Jersey City gay-conversion therapy practice

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Thomas Kessler, said the suit “fills in the gap” by protecting parties not covered under the state statute, and can “serve as a road map” for others wishing to bring similar suits.

“This case was always about protecting vulnerable people and families against the purveyors of fraudulent, harmful and ineffective so-called gay-to-straight conversion therapy,” said Scott McCoy, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We are gratified that the appellate decision agreed that Judge Bariso’s decision was correct and that the New Jersey legislature got it right when it outlawed conversion therapy for minors because ‘[b]eing lesbian, gay, or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming.’”

“Conversion therapy is fraudulent, dangerous and unconscionable because it is based on the lie that LGBTQ people can and should be fixed,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey human rights advocate.

“In a landmark June 2015 victory, a jury found that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), the predecessor of Jewish Institute for Global Awareness, and the group’s founders, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, falsely claimed that being gay or lesbian was a mental disease or disorder that could be cured and that it could change its clients from gay to straight, in violation of New Jersey’s consumer fraud law,” said McCormick.

Within weeks of the entry of the June 2015 injunction, JONAH began violating the court order by promoting and facilitating conversion therapy by making referrals to individual counselors and to “experiential weekends” that purported to help people go from gay to straight, by collecting referral fees, by acting as a middleman between clients and counselors, and by participating in the organization and facilitation of conversion therapy programs.

These violations continued for years.

“Despite that ruling, the defendants conspicuously violated the court’s injunction.  Judge Bariso subsequently issued a 47-page written decision finding that the defendants violated the 2015 injunction and settlement agreement,” said McCormick.

“Reparative” or “conversion” therapy is a dangerous practice that targets LGBTQ youth and seeks to change their sexual or gender identities.

So-called “conversion therapy,” sometimes known as “reparative therapy,” is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

Such practices have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades, but due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy.

Minors are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.

New Jersey, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all have laws or regulations protecting youth from this harmful practice.

A growing number of municipalities have also enacted similar protections, including at least 70 cities and counties in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin.

​On three occasions—April 2019, February 2016, and May 2015—the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) allowed decisions of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding New Jersey’s anti-conversion therapy law to remain in effect.

SCOTUS also refused to hear challenges to California’s anti-conversion therapy law in May of 2017 and June of 2014, leaving in place decisions of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the law’s constitutionality.

​According to a recent report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ minors in states without protections will be subjected to conversion therapy by a licensed healthcare professional if state officials fail to act.

In April 2018, national organizations representing millions of licensed medical and mental health care professionals, educators, and child welfare advocates declared their support for legislative protections against conversion therapy.

Some right-wing religious groups promote the concept that an individual can change their sexual orientation or gender identity, either through prayer or other religious efforts, or through so-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy.

The research on such efforts has disproven their efficacy, and also has indicated that they are affirmatively harmful.

Beyond studies focused solely on reparative therapy, broader research clearly demonstrates the significant harm that societal prejudice and family rejection has on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, particularly youth.

Furthermore, there is significant anecdotal evidence of harm to LGBTQ people resulting from attempts to change their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Based on this body of evidence, every major medical and mental health organization in the United States has issued a statement condemning the use of conversion therapy.

In Ferguson v. JONAH, victims who challenged the representations and practices of providers of “gay conversion therapy” under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), won a complete victory.

The unanimous jury verdict was that all of the defendants had violated the CFA by committing numerous misrepresentations about the nature of homosexuality, the alleged “success rate” of the defendants’ practices, the ability of the defendants to turn men from gay to straight, and other things. The jury also unanimously ruled that all of the defendants had committed unconscionable commercial practices in violation of the CFA.

This case was the first of its kind in the United States. To read the original complaint, click here.

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